Does biblical use, and especially the New Testament, mean that God is in some way male, or more like male than female, as Anselm seemed once to imply? A number of respected theologians and Christian thinkers of the twentieth century appear to have believed it does. They include, surprisingly, figures like C.S. Lewis (see above) and more recently, Elizabeth Achtemeier1 in an article in Christianity Today entitled “Why God is not Mother”. There she recognises that:
“In many respects, women have legitimate cause for concern. They have suffered discrimination in the church for centuries. They have been denied respect for their learning and persons. They have been labelled the source of sin in the world. They have been kept from key leadership roles because they do not biologically ‘resemble Christ.’ Discrimination continues today, with the Bible misused as its instrument.”2
Indeed she claims that:
“Such discrimination is a corruption and fundamental denial of the Christian gospel. The Scriptures proclaim both female and male made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Husband and wife are to join flesh in mutual helpfulness (Genesis 2:18). The ancient enmity between the sexes and the subservience of women are a result of human sin (Genesis 3). These Christ overcame by death and resurrection (Galatians 3:28). Women and men are called equally to serve their risen Lord. The Scriptures further show that Christ treated women as equals and that the New Testament churches had women as leaders.”3
Clearly, she is not an unthinking antifeminist, and we need to listen to her and respond to her arguments. One of the strongest, that she shares with others who argue against motherly talk of God, refers to the nature of picture language:
“The few instances of feminine imagery for God in the Bible all take the form of simile, not metaphor, as literary critic Roland Frye has amply demonstrated. That distinction is instructive. A simile compares one aspect of something to another. For example, in Isaiah 42:14, God will ‘cry out like a woman in travail,’ but only his crying out is being referred to; he is not being identified as a whole with the figure of a woman in childbirth. In metaphors, on the other hand, the whole of one thing is compared to the whole of another. God is Father or Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Thus the metaphor, as Frye writes, ‘carries a word or phrase far beyond its ordinary lexical meaning so as to provide a fuller and more direct understanding of the subject.’ Language is stretched to its limit, beyond ordinary usage, to provide new understanding.”4
Though she stands in a long tradition using this argument against talk of God the Mother, Achtemeier’s distinction between God as mother, a simile, and God as father, a metaphor, will not work.5 Is the pimple on the good shepherd’s nose included in the aspects compared to Jesus? Or, should I compare my father’s tendency to fall asleep watching television with God? Indeed, since the relationship with a mother is what defines a father, we have a right to ask: Who is the “mother” when we speak of God as “father”?
“The Bible uses masculine language for God because that is the language with which God has revealed himself. Biblical Christian faith is a revealed religion. It claims no knowledge of God beyond the knowledge God has given of himself through his words and deeds in the histories of Israel and of Jesus Christ and his church. In fact, it is quite certain that human beings, by searching out God, cannot find him. Unless God reveals himself, he remains unknown to humanity.”6
But the God of the Bible has revealed himself.
“…human beings must invent language for God, the God of the Bible has revealed himself in five principal metaphors: King, Father, Judge, Husband, and Master, and then finally, decisively, as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”7
“God is not just like a father; he is the Father. Jesus is not just like a son, he is the Son. The divine Fatherhood and Sonship are absolute, transcendent, and correlative. . . The relationship between Christ Jesus and his Father, lived out in the conditions of first-century Palestine and eternally established in the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, belongs to the inner life of God. It constitutes the identity of the Almighty Creator... ‘Father’ is not a metaphor imported by humanity onto the screen of eternity; it is a name and filial term of address revealed by God himself in the person of his Son.”8
This argument, that “father” is not a metaphor, but the very nature of God is dangerous. To claim that any particular genetically determined human characteristic (like sex, or skin colour) is more than metaphorically applied to God must exclude the rest of humanity from a full share in the divine image. Achtemeier flirts with this danger to avoid another, for she believes that feminine imagery for God carries a risk not associated with masculine imagery, the too close identification of God and world. God the mother cannot, it seems be transcendent:
“It is precisely the introduction of female language for God that opens the door to such identification of God with the world, however. If God is portrayed in feminine language, the figures of carrying in the womb, of giving birth, and of suckling immediately come into play...”9
Achtemeier gives examples of the use of such imagery by feminist authors that she claims result in too close an identification of God with the world. She concludes: “If God is identified with his creation, we finally make ourselves gods and goddesses, the ultimate and primeval sin (Gen. 3).” Somehow, she believes this danger is greater if we address God as “mother” rather than “father”.
Achtemeier’s argument seems strange on Evangelical lips. She seeks to ignore and avoid speaking of God using motherly language, even though it is a biblical usage. If all picturing of God as feminine is wrong, then we must not accept Old Testament feminine words about God. We should even expunge from the Bible Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23:37-39 and Luke 13:34-35, since female birds with chicks are feminine figures.
Her conclusion puts the issue clearly: “By attempting to change the biblical language used of the deity… feminists have in reality exchanged the true God for those deities which are "no gods," as Jeremiah put it (2:11).”10
However, we must ask, To what does Jeremiah refer in 2:11 and elsewhere? In this passage, for we must always read biblical verses in context, Jeremiah complains that the people follow false “gods”. So, are these “gods” in fact goddesses? Or are they male gods who beget, in contrast with the not-pictured, non-sexual God of Israel. Look at verse 8, the place where the falsehood the people follow is named:
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
So, in Jeremiah 2, as in most passages where the Lord’s prophets condemn the people’s worship of falsehood, the false god is the male, begetting, father, warrior-king whose very name, Baal, means “lord” or “husband”. The people seek a god who is male, a father and king. (The prophet quite naturally condemns the people just as much in Jeremiah 7:18 when they prefer a female “Queen of Heaven”.) In contrast, Jeremiah’s God is beyond the limits of human sexual distinction.
Paradoxically, if Achtemeier and Lewis, great defenders of orthodox Christian belief, win this battle, and we accept that God is in some sense male-not-female, then Baal wins the battle lost on Mt Carmel in about 850bc! Those who defend the notion that talk of God as mother should be similar to talk of God as father are not the dangerous heretics. They are rather, like Elijah, defenders of the true God against human idolatry. The idolaters are those who would make God male or father alone!
The creator of the universe is neither a father nor a mother. God neither fathered the world by impregnating someone or something, nor gave birth to the world. God created it from nothing. This is why the image of God is not in either man or woman alone, but male and female together (Genesis 1:27). If this is true, then to worship God as a father alone is to worship something that is less than the creator of all. The god that we would be worshiping in that case is a god that we have created for ourselves, not the biblical God. This is idolatry.
1 Achtemeier (1986, 1987, 1992, 1993) and other authors mainly collected in Kimel (1992).
2 Elizabeth Achtemeier “Why God is not Mother” Christianity Today 37,9, 1993, 17-23 (quotation from 17).
4 Ibid., 19 (emphasis in these quotes from Achtemeier’s article is copied from the original).
5 See my discussion of Frye’s argument above p.8.
6 Ibid. (Italics from the original.)
8 Achtemeier (1993) 19 quoting Alvin Kimel (who is the editor of the book in which Achtemeier’s article originally appeared).
9 Ibid. 20. (Capitalisation copied from the original.)
10 Achtemeier (1993) 17.